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Enjoy & Learn

Last Night of the Proms in Cracow

“The Last Night of the Proms is one of the most popular classical music concerts in the world, watched and listened to by an audience of many millions around the globe.” This is what we find out about the Last Night on the BBC website. Unless you know something about the Proms festival, at this point you have probably started to wonder how it is possible to put “popular” and “classical” next to each other in the same sentence…

The BBC Proms are an eight-week summer season of daily orchestral classical music concerts held in Central London every year, mainly in the Royal Albert Hall in South Kensington. Currently each season consists of over 70 concerts in the Albert Hall, a series of eight chamber concerts, additional locations on the Last Night and associated educational and children’s events. It is the biggest classical music festival in the world.

“Proms” is short for “promenade concerts.” The term “promenade concert” arose from the original practice of audience members promenading, or strolling, in some areas of the concert hall during the concert. “Promming” now refers to the use of the standing areas inside the hall (the arena and gallery) for which ticket prices are much lower than for the reserved seating places. However, the only way to obtain such a cheap ticket is to buy it on the day of the concert. Therefore sometimes, before the concerts of famous orchestras or the ones presenting popular works, really long lines of “Prommers” form in front of the hall. There are also some “Prommers” who faithfully attend all the concerts considering it a badge of honor to be present at each and every one of them each year.

The story of the festival starts in 1895, on August 10th to be exact, in the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. The first Proms concert was organized by Robert Newman. His idea was to encourage an audience who normally did not attend such concerts, but would be attracted by the cheap ticket prices and more informal atmosphere (promenading, eating, drinking and smoking were all allowed during the event). Therefore, the repertoire chosen for the concerts was mostly composed of more popular and less demanding works. The concert turned out to be very successful and became a regular autumn event, which attracted more and more people each year. Very soon it developed into a series of concerts and then a full-blown festival. Thanks to Henry Joseph Wood, the conductor responsible for the event in those early years (who even today is still considered to be the father–or at least the godfather–of the whole thing), the repertoire also started to change, and thus in the 1920s the concerts started to present music of contemporary artists such as Claude Debussy, Richard Strauss and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

In 1927 the BBC took over organization of the concerts and in 1930 the newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra became the main orchestra performing during the event. Save for a break during World War II, when the BBC withdrew its support and the main concert venue (the Queen’s Hall) was destroyed in a bombing raid, the Proms have continued until the present day, becoming more and more popular and attracting famous conductors, musicians and orchestras from all over the world.

The most famous part of the festival is the Last Night of the Proms, from which most people’s perception of the whole event is taken. Last Night is quite different from the other concerts. It always takes place on Saturday and is traditionally kept in a lighter “winding-down” vein, with more popular classics being followed by some patriotic pieces like Hubert Parry’s “Jerusalem” (a poem by William Blake set to music) or Sir Henry Wood’s “Fantasia on British Sea Songs.” Tickets are in high demand, and it is necessary to have attended several other Proms in the season to stand a chance of obtaining one. “Prommers” usually line up much earlier (even overnight) in order to gain a good place to stand in the hall. This, in part, adds to the atmosphere. In addition, fancy dress is welcome: from dinner jackets to patriotic T-shirts. Flags, balloons, party poppers etc. are all welcome as well, provided the music is treated with due respect. Near the end of the concert, the conductor makes a speech thanking the musicians, audiences and mentioning the main themes covered through the season. Finally, “God Save the Queen” and “Auld Lang Syne” are sung.

Because of high popularity of the closing concert of the festival, a few years ago park concerts were started to accommodate those people who did not manage to get into the Royal Albert Hall. At first, they were just held in Hyde Park near the Hall, but in recent years more locations were added and in 2005 additional Last Nights in the Park were even held in different cities, namely Belfast, Glasgow, Swansea and Manchester. Each location has their own live concert and only at the end it joins with the Royal Albert Hall for the traditional finale.

In 1996, the Cracow Industrial Society came up with the idea of replicating London’s Last Night of the Proms, dedicating the event to Brits working in Poland. It is held every autumn in the Cracow Philharmonic Hall and it always attracts a lot of people, both lovers of music and of Britain. Just like the original Last Night of the Proms in London, the concert has a quite relaxed but also patriotic atmosphere (both Polish and British national anthems are performed at the end). There are also two types of tickets, the more expensive ones with reserved seats and the cheap tickets for “Prommers,” which only guarantee entry and then everyone must find their own comfortable standing place. People wear patriotic T-shirts and British national colors. They sing, clap and have a lot of fun together. Polish Last Nights are maybe not as wild as the British ones, however, for Polish people used to the reverence and respect usually accompanying classical music concerts, the Last Night can be a very interesting and fresh experience. Therefore, if you happen to have a free Saturday somewhere in September and would like to see a little bit of British tradition transplanted to Cracow, join the crowd in the Philharmonic Hall to enjoy a wonderful performance of some great classical works of music and then sing “God Save the Queen” and “Auld Lang Syne.” And don’t forget to dress in appropriate colors.

Katarzyna Stankowska
FELBERG branch in Kraków

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